Mood Swings: Inside Out, Rape of the Lock

Joy and Sadness in "Inside Out"

Joy and Sadness in “Inside Out”

I saw Insight Out over the weekend and heartily join the chorus of praise. It’s a smart look at the inside of an 11-year-old girl’s brain.

As imaginative as the film was, however, it wasn’t the first time that someone has created a dramatized version of a young woman’s mind. While I doubt that Pixar had Rape of the Lock in mind when it made the film, Pope’s mock epic has influenced other Disney films. The ice fairies in Fantasia, the blue birds in Cinderella, and the animal chorus in The Little Mermaid’s “Kiss the Girl” scene can all be traced back to the sylphs in Rape of the Lock.

At first we appear to have a sylph-like helper in the movie: Joy, Riley’s upbeat emotion, tries to make everything wonderful. But Riley’s family has moved to San Francisco and eventually Anger, Fear, and Disgust take over Riley’s mind. According to Dacher Keltner and Paul Ekman, two neuropsychologists who were consulted for the film, it is common for positive emotions to “drop precipitously in frequency and intensity” once one turns 11.

Pope’s Belinda is older than 11—I’m guessing 16 or 17—but we see her undergo a similar drop. At first she is under the protection of the sylph Ariel, who helps her maintain her poise as a gay coquette. When she is humiliated in public by “the Baron,” however, she plunges into depression. It’s at that point that Pope takes us inside her mind.

Here’s Pope’s description of her fall into depression after the Baron cuts off one of her locks with a pair of scissors:

But anxious Cares the pensive Nymph oppressed,
And secret Passions labored in her Breast.
Not youthful Kings in Battle seized alive,
Not scornful Virgins who their Charms survive,
Not ardent Lovers robbed of all their Bliss,
Not ancient Ladies when refused a Kiss,
Not Tyrants fierce that unrepenting die,
Not Cynthia when her Manteau’s pinned awry, 
E’er felt such Rage, Resentment and Despair,
As Thou, sad Virgin! for thy ravished Hair.

Just as Riley loses Joy, so Belinda loses Ariel, who is replaced by the gnome Umbriel.

For, that sad moment, when the Sylphs withdrew,
And Ariel weeping from Belinda flew,
Umbriel, a dusky melancholy Spright,
As ever sully’d the fair face of Light,
Down to the Central Earth, his proper Scene,
Repairs to search the gloomy Cave of Spleen.

The spleen was seen as the anatomical cause of female depression in the 18th century, and in Pope’s poem the goddess Spleen is portrayed as an ill-tempered old maid who has lost joy. Instead, she lounges around in self pity making life miserable for everyone. She represents a possible future for Belinda:

Here, in a Grotto, sheltered close from Air,
And screened in Shades from Day’s detested Glare,
She sighs for ever on her pensive Bed,
Pain at her side, and Megrim [migraine] at her Head.

   Two Handmaids wait the Throne: Alike in Place,
But diff’ring far in Figure and in Face.
Here stood Ill-nature like an ancient Maid,
Her wrinkled Form in Black and White arrayed;
With store of Prayers, for Mornings, Nights, and Noons,
Her Hand is filled; her Bosom with Lampoons.

Just as we get a surreal interior landscape in Inside Out, so do we get one in Rape of the Lock. Pope’s images, many of them drawn from the stage, suggest madness and/or sexual repression. I’ve never understood all of them but, as with Inside Out, sometimes it’s best just to give yourself over to the wild phantasmagoria:

   A constant Vapor o’er the Palace flies;
Strange Phantoms rising as the Mists arise; 
Dreadful, as Hermit’s Dreams in haunted Shades,
Or bright as Visions of expiring Maids.
Now glaring Fiends, and Snakes on rolling Spires,
Pale Spectres, gaping Tombs, and Purple Fires:
Now Lakes of liquid Gold, Elysian Scenes,
And Crystal Domes, and Angels in Machines.

   Unnumbered Throngs on ev’ry side are seen
Of Bodies changed to various Forms by Spleen.
Here living Teapots stand, one Arm held out,
One bent; the Handle this, and that the Spout: 
A Pipkin there like Homer’s Tripod walks;
Here sighs a Jar, and there a Goose Pie talks;
Men prove with Child, as powerful Fancy works,
And Maids turned Bottles, call aloud for Corks.

Umbriel asks the queen to “touch Belinda with chagrin,” explaining that “that single Act gives half the World the Spleen.” The goddess complies, presenting him with two gifts guaranteed to ensure a major temper tantrum:

A wondrous Bag with both her Hands she binds,
Like that where once Ulysses held the Winds;
There she collects the Force of Female Lungs,
Sighs, Sobs, and Passions, and the War of Tongues.
A Vial next she fills with fainting Fears,
Soft Sorrows, melting Griefs, and flowing Tears.
The Gnome rejoicing bears her Gift away,
Spreads his black Wings, and slowly mounts to Day.

Just as, in Inside Out, we cut between the inside of Riley’s head and what other people see, so Pope too moves between interior and exterior. Following the assault, Belinda is in the arms of her best friend, the fiery Thalestris:

Sunk in Thalestris’ Arms the Nymph he [Umbriel] found,
Her Eyes dejected and her Hair unbound.
Full o’er their Heads the swelling Bag he rent,
And all the Furies issued at the Vent.
Belinda burns with more than mortal Ire,
And fierce Thalestris fans the rising Fire.

After Umbriel breaks the bag of wind, Belinda goes and screams at the Baron, demanding that he return her lock. Then she breaks down in tears after Umbriel delivers the vial of tears:

   But Umbriel, hateful Gnome! forbears not so;
He breaks the Vial whence the Sorrows flow.
Then see! the Nymph in beauteous Grief appears,
Her Eyes half languishing, half drowned in Tears;
On her heaved Bosom hung her drooping Head,
Which, with a Sigh, she raised; and thus she said.
For ever curs’d be this detested Day,

Which snatched my best, my fav’rite Curl away!

There’s a significant difference between poem and film, however. In the poem, Belinda is urged by another character to laugh the whole thing off and to emerge with a more mature view of life:

What then remains, but well our Pow’r to use,
And keep good Humour still whate’er we lose?
And trust me, Dear! good Humor can prevail,
When Airs, and Flights, and Screams, and Scolding fail.
Beauties in vain their pretty Eyes may roll;
Charms strike the Sight, but Merit wins the Soul.

I can report that my women students generally have violent objections to responding thus to what is, after all, a case of sexual harassment.

Inside Out, by contrast, doesn’t advise pushing the hurt under. Instead, Riley needs to acknowledge her sadness to her parents, who then can commiserate. As the psychologist consultants explain,

Toward the end of the film, it is Sadness that leads Riley to reunite with her parents, involving forms of touch and emotional sounds called “vocal bursts” — which one of us has studied in the lab — that convey the profound delights of reunion.

Inside Out offers a new approach to sadness. Its central insight: Embrace sadness, let it unfold, engage patiently with a preteen’s emotional struggles. Sadness will clarify what has been lost (childhood) and move the family toward what is to be gained: the foundations of new identities, for children and parents alike.

The difference between poem and film may expose a weakness in Pope’s poem. By essentially telling Belinda to “suck it up,” he doesn’t acknowledge her sense of loss. Then again, we are much more sensitive to the child’s feelings than they were in the 18th century.

At least Pope knows enough not to show Belinda following such advice, which would be utterly unrealistic. The character of Rationality shows up in neither Rape of the lock nor Inside Out. Belinda instead, pushed past endurance by the Baron’s smugness, throws snuff in his face:

But this bold Lord, with manly Strength indued,
She with one Finger and a Thumb subdued,
Just where the Breath of Life his Nostrils drew,
A Charge of Snuff the wily Virgin threw;
The Gnomes direct, to ev’ry Atom just,
The pungent Grains of titillating Dust.
Sudden, with starting Tears each Eye o’erflows,
And the high Dome re-echoes to his Nose.

Riley’s consolation is a reunion with her parents and the fabrication of new core memories that will help her survive hard times in her future. Belinda’s consolation, Pope tells her, is that his poem will make her famous for all eternity. And indeed we still know about Arabella Fermor, the real life Belinda upon whom the poem was based.

I like Inside Out’s resolution better, in large part because it seeks to understand rather than satirize the heroine. Perhaps Pope could have found ways to get Ariel and Umbriel to work as a tandem rather than seeing Belinda only in the grip of one or the other. Her society, on the other hand, seems to have less forgiveness for screw-ups.

Further thought: Of course, one reason Inside Out has a more comfortable resolution is that Riley hasn’t yet turned 13. There’s a big button labeled “Puberty” on the console and the characters wonder what it does. To quote Al Jolson, Riley and her parents “ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”

Belinda reminds me of a character in a May 18 New Yorker short story I just read by Justin Taylor. Charity, a teenager, exchanges a single sex text with a much older man she sits next to on a plane and suddenly finds herself overwhelmed by his flood of desire (all expressed via text). Out of her depth, she cuts off correspondence with him and the story’s title–“So You’re Just What, Gone?–is his last text. The following passage from the story describes Belinda to a “t” and may soon apply to Riley:

The Mark thing will make so much less sense out loud than it did when she did it, or even than it does now as she goes over it in her head. That’s the most unfair part. Everyone will have their own version of “What were you thinking” and “Why did you do that?” Like her life is some book she needs to write a report about, identifying key themes and meaning, when, really, texting Mark was like peeking in the doorway of a bar or the teachers’ lounge–someplace you could get in trouble for going into but were curious to glimpse the inside of, just to be able to say that you knew what was in there. And maybe someone had dared you to do it and maybe you had had to dare yourself.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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